The Quest for the Mermaid Chair

The Quest for the Mermaid Chair

My sister and I went to Cornwall for one reason only: to see the Mermaid Chair. It was 2009. We’d inherited some money after our grandparents’ passing, and like any young twenty-somethings who were yearning to travel and lacked foresight about doing prudent things like putting money into savings, we decided to go to England for eight days.

The trip was, to be frank, a bit insane. As the older, “wiser” sister who’d studied abroad in England, I was in charge of securing lodgings and making an itinerary. We soon learned upon landing in London that my penchant for procrastinating and selecting hostels based solely on price (cheap, cheaper, or cheapest) would lead to disaster.

Our hostel in London was in some far-off, vaguely ghetto neighborhood that took an hour to get to from Heathrow. A very expensive hour, I might add. We shared a stuffy room with a bunch of snoring, stinky men. There was a bar downstairs that was open till 4am on weeknights, and where throngs of drunk British teenagers gathered, squawking and yelling, until the wee hours of the morning.

After four hot, crammed, busy days in London, we escaped the city to Cambridge for a few days. Then it was off to Oxford. While in Oxford, en route to London, I suddenly realized that I’d incorrectly remembered the time our bus was to leave for Cornwall. We had less than 15 minutes to make it to our departing bus for St. Ives.

We tried to explain, feeling like complete idiots. Yes, we’d come to Cornwall to see a chair. No, we didn’t know exactly where it is, but we knew it was somewhere close to St. Ives. Yes, the book had been awful, but we wanted to see the chair anyway.

Expletives.

The moment the bus arrived at Victoria Station in London, we grabbed our luggage, hurried off the bus, and sprinted from one end of Victoria Station to the other, dragging our rickety pink suitcases (another purchase made for thrift instead of quality), cursing at each other, sweating buckets, and praying that we’d make it.

We did—by a hairsbreadth.

The trip took eight hours. Eight hot, long hours. My sister got carsick as we winded through the hilly countryside. I tried to distract her so she wouldn’t throw up. Then the woman in the seat in front of us started puking. Wonderful. The air conditioning worked in spurts. We went from sweating to freezing. Evidently, some people had neglected to bathe, or wear deodorant. Three drunk Scottish people in the back kept yelling. A creepy old man turned around and stared at us for a good fifteen minutes. We tried to ignore him when he touched his crotch.

“Why are we going there?” Lisa groaned, holding her stomach.

“It’ll be worth it,” I promised, hoping it really would be.  “Trust me.”

But why Cornwall? Perhaps because we were both English majors and dorky bookworms. King Arthur was supposed to hail from there, after all. The Pirates of Penzance took place in Cornwall. It was also the land of Daphne du Maurier, the author of Rebecca, and where D.H. Lawrence (the sex-obsessed modernist writer who scandalized the world with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and his overuse of the word “cleave”)  had lived for a spell with his wife, Frieda. But we were mostly just going because of that damned Mermaid Chair.

The summer before, I’d read The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. It was absolute drivel, but it mentioned something that intrigued me immediately—a Mermaid Chair in Cornwall, based on the legend of a young man who drowned at sea after being lured to his death by a beautiful mermaid. I lent the book to my sister, and she decided that she wanted to see the chair too. This wasn’t too shocking since The Little Mermaid had been one of our favorite movies as children.

So, it was off to Cornwall we went.

The moment we arrived, I knew it had been worth it. St. Ives is absolutely stunning—a former fishing village and artist’s colony perched atop a turquoise sea. The air was balmy and salty, and it felt more like we were in the south of France than in England. We dropped our things off at our hostel and went in search of a pub. We ended up in the one that was closest to our hostel. It was warm, cozy, crowded, and everything an English pub should be.

We’d been expecting something gorgeous, ridiculous, vaguely Disneyish—heck, maybe even King Triton’s throne from The Little Mermaid. A giant chair covered in jewels and seashells, perhaps.

As we were getting our drinks at the bar we met one of the women who worked in our hostel. She was a friendly South African who immediately invited us to join her and her friends. “So what brings you to Cornwall?” she asked. Lisa and I looked at each other.

“Um,” I started, “have any of you read The Mermaid Chair?”

No one had.

We tried to explain, feeling like complete idiots. Yes, we’d come to Cornwall to see a chair. No, we didn’t know exactly where it is, but we knew it was somewhere close to St. Ives. Yes, the book had been awful, but we wanted to see the chair anyway.

Finally, we found a local who had heard of the chair. “Oh yeah, I know that chair,” she said. “It’s in Zennor, I think. There’s some story it was based on—something about a mermaid and some love-struck bloke.” We asked it she’d ever seen it.

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

We caught a bus the next day to Zennor. It was beautiful—the verdant Cornish hills, the clear blue sky, the phallic stone towers, the bright seaside. We sat atop a double-decker bus and marveled at the scenery. We were let off in the small village of Zennor. After a random stop for ice cream, my sister and I headed down to the ancient stone church of St. Senara, where the Mermaid Chair resided. The church of St. Senara was built in Norman times, most likely on top of the site of a 6th century Celtic church, and was named after a Cornish princess named Azenor.

It was cool and damp inside. Finally, we saw it—the Mermaid Chair. “Oh my God,” Lisa finally said.  “That’s it?”

It was indeed. We’d been expecting something gorgeous, ridiculous, vaguely Disneyish—heck, maybe even King Triton’s throne from The Little Mermaid. A giant chair covered in jewels and seashells, perhaps.

Instead, we found…an old wooden chair with an ugly mermaid.

It was ludicrous—we’d planned a trip to Cornwall to see this hideous and un-monumental thing. All we could do was laugh, then take several irreverent photos to remember our trip by.

About Michelle Philippon

Michelle Philippon is a Sagittarius who doesn’t really care about those things and currently lives in Toledo, Ohio, home of the Mud Hens, Jeep, and a bunch of deer. She likes reading, hiking, Netflix binges (newest obsession: The Crown), hanging out with her cat, and obviously having a thriving social life because she enjoys reading, hiking, Netflix binges, and hanging out with her cat. She also enjoys traveling, has lived abroad twice (England and Spain), and loves going on random day trips to places like Windsor, Canada and Funk, Ohio. Michelle has worn a lot of career hats but currently works in business development and marketing for a business growth agency.

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